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Better To Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril

By Judith Merril

and Emily Pohl-Weary

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Between the Lines,

282 pages, $29.95

Gamma-ray bursts are God's flashbulbs, flares of energy so unimaginably violent that, even though they're cosmically distant, they can sometimes actually outshine the entire universe . . . for a matter of seconds or minutes. So far, GRBs can neither be predicted nor understood; all we can do is stare, and wonder.

Judith Merril (1923-1997) published her first science-fiction story, That Only a Mother, the year I was born, and had she been male, like nearly all the SF writers working then, she would have stood out from the pack. Since she was female, she hit the scene with the impact of a gamma-ray burst. An atypically durable one. Half a century later, her spontaneous combustion is finally extinguished . . . but the glow shows little sign of fading.

Canadian science fiction, to the extent that there is such a thing, exists in large part because Judith Merril chose to move here. Her impact on the field can be inferred from the reason that I was asked to write this review. "Everyone I can find here in Toronto was either a dear friend or a bitter enemy of hers," the editor said. I started to say I counted Merril a dear friend myself, and am quoted praising her extravagantly on page 3 . . . and then I shut my mouth and accepted the commission. Anyone competent to review Merril's memoir must be either friend or foe, because those are the only two options she allowed people. So it may as well be a friend.

Merril was not merely larger than life; she was larger than fiction. She was a political radical before McCarthy was elected, a Zionist before there was an Israel, a feminist long before feminism, a peacenik two wars before Vietnam, an ecological activist before the word "ecology" existed, and sexually liberated decades before that polite term for it was coined. (Her lovers included Theodore Sturgeon, Walter Miller, Frederik Pohl and Fritz Leiber.) With Damon Knight, who died last month, she helped create the Futurians, the Science Fiction Writers of America, the Clarion Conference and the New Wave. After moving to Canada to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam, she taught at Rochdale, helped create the Writers Union of Canada and founded Toronto's famous Spaced-Out Library, the Auroras (Canada's annual SF awards), and our first and so far only SF anthology series, Tesseracts. I think she was one of the top 10 greatest shit-disturbers of the 20th century (I know she'll haunt my dreams tonight because I didn't say top five), and as evidence I offer this remarkable book.

It is perfectly typical of her. Her particular genius was coming up with splendid ideas, then finding someone else to do the actual grunt work, and wandering off. This time the one she left holding the sack was her own granddaughter, Emily Pohl-Weary, who found herself drafted as Merril's primary caregiver and then as her unpaid secretary-researcher-ghostwriter- editor. When Judith died in 1997, she left truckloads of tapes, papers and rare photos . . . with instructions lengthy, explicit and peremptory enough to madden a saint. Like so many of Merril's past victims, Pohl-Weary has responded magnificently, managing to turn the jumble-sale she inherited into a clear, accurate and balanced representation of one of the most remarkable women in Canadian letters.

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Occasionally a historical detail is elided or airbrushed to spare the feelings of a living participant . . . but not Merril's. She is presented just as she was: stubborn as a pit-bull, exasperating as a two-year-old with a PhD, chronically pessimistic.

The last chapter in this book, for instance, is a dark muttering about imminent ecodisaster and civil catastrophe; Pohl-Weary says in her foreword that she disagreed with it so strongly that she rewrote it several times before giving up and printing the original.

I agree with both her opinion and her editorial decision: I believe Merril's last gloomy predictions are wrong . . . but in a way that is sheer Judith. Her very first story was a post-Hiroshima grim warning about infants maimed by radiation-induced mutation; that this problem turned out to be nonexistent does not diminish the story's extraordinary emotional power.

I think even Merril's worst enemy would agree that this book is a fascinating and invaluable historical resource and literary treasure trove, a uniquely privileged window on the Golden Age of Science Fiction and the remarkable, contentious, colourful, creative men and women who invented it as they went along.

If you capture a gamma-ray burst on tape, preserve it, then it can live forever. All praise to hardworking, self-taught astronomer Emily Pohl-Weary, who has helped her grandmother become immortal; an honour Judith Merril earned, a punishment she deserved, and a final joke on her that she would have loved. B.C. writer Spider Robinson ( http://www.spiderrobinson.com) is author most recently of The Free Lunch ; his column Future Tense appears in The Globe and Mail.

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